LEGOs produced more than 50 years ago are compatible with today's bricks, and almost three generations of kids have fueled their imaginations with the iconic interlocking plastic toys. But when LEGO Star Wars first appeared in 2005, it was an instant classic and marked perhaps the first time a toy IP found critical success (as opposed to just financial success) in the video game marketplace. The appeal of the Traveler's Tales games (LEGO Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman, and now RockBand) for adult gamers has always been a winning blend of nostalgia and simple amusement, combined with strikingly gameplay depth. Even for kids, the LEGO games are so rigorously polished that even the most playful moves are anticipated, lending the game a dynamic feel seldom found at a comparatively low price point that parents no doubt love.
All that paved the way for a comprehensive online treatment of the LEGO ideal, and we've been excited to see more of LEGO Universe ever since our friends at NetDevil revealed they were developing the family-friendly game in June 2007. Last week, Ten Ton Hammer was on-hand the first live in-game demo of LEGO Universe. LEGOs Mark Hansen and NetDevil Creative Director Ryan Seabury head-manned the demo, which covered the opening tutorial and first two playable worlds: Avant Gardens and Gnarled Forest.
Starting Out in LEGO UniverseEverything from the login screen forward had more production value than we were used to in a first reveal. Bouncey interface elements combined with a LEGO mini-fig (the iconic lego character) gesturing throughout the login process. For example, the minifig covered its eyes as the password was entered, and the practical purpose of which, Ryan explained, was to teach younger players that passwords should remain a secret. Its a simple clue that kids have actually picked up on much better than a textual warning in testing, Ryan intimated. Each account has four character slots, complete with a fun exploding minifig animation when you delete a character. The LEGO ID we used to sign in is something you can sign up for today at lego.com. Just to show that the backend technology is well underway, Ryan noted that though the demo was held in San Francisco, the server was located in Miami, and a group of QA testers from Montreal teamed up with us for the entire demo.
Character creation started out with a glowing creative spark which, as Ryan explained, is the immortal soul of the mini-fig and "can never be extinguished." Players can create a surprisingly unique minifig from the outfit options and facial features available, though all mini-figs are the same size. This one size fits all approach allows NetDevil animators to create an astonishing variety of poses, emotes, and animations, as I saw later. Character creation retained the playful approach of the login screen: players will scroll through racks of color-adjustable clothing and an astonishing, well-presented variety of facial features and hair pieces, rather than force players to wheedle through clumsy checkboxes and sliders. Ryan promised that what we saw was just the tip of the iceberg. Theres so many items we can draw from the past, from the present, and well even be introducing a few new things for LEGO Universe.
Since a backstory cinematic that would greet new players upon their first login wasnt quite ready yet, the curtain opened on an epicly damaged spaceship that will serve as the games tutorial area. Demoed on a 42 inch HDTV in full 1080p, I was immediately impressed with both how crisp, clean, and nearly tangible the minifigs and game environment looked and how hiccup-free the demo experience was. In other words, the game looks even better than the thumbnail screenshots in this article contend, though youd be forgiven for thinking that even these images are concept art.
As for lore, Ryan explained: Theres a huge epic story going on in the background, and its a struggle between creativity and chaos / destruction. Part of what youre coming into LEGO Universe to do is to help save imagination. All you need to know today is: youre coming in on a spaceship to enter LEGO Universe. En route to your destination, you pass by this black hole or this maelstrom out in space. It surges out and strikes your ship, which then tears the ship apart, and youre now careening towards the center of the black hole. Your immediate goal is to get off the spaceship. The spaceship is designed as a fairly linear teaching tool for the basic elements of the game, such as movement, NPC interaction, combat (i.e. smashing crates which provides you with loot, meaning the LEGO blocks and pieces needed to complete challenges both functional and aesthetic, but more on that later), and the platformer-style jump puzzles and obstacle courses which constitute a large part of LEGO U gameplay. Players are clued into basic actions primarily by large thought bubbles which clue you in on the correct key to hit to begin an action, but also occasionally by less-than-obtrusive popups.
Our first mission giver, Bob, activated our creative spark, which practically speaking allows players to store imagination. Think of imagination like mana - it allows you to do special abilities and build things. When Bob asked use to do a bit of platform jumping to fetch some creative orbs, our minifig fell to his death. In any case, you can lose a few coins and lose progress toward your goal by dying, but according to Ryan, the penalties wont be harsh.
We satisified Bobs mission requirements, did the turn in, and after a refreshing bit of electrocution (to activate the creative spark, not necessarily for psychotherapy), our minifig was full of imagination. Sky Lane, our next mission giver, frantically gestured for us to get off the ship, but to do that, well need a Thinking Hat to create a one-minifig rocketship constructed according to a transparent 3D blueprint overlay hovering nearby. Ryan explained that this is only a rough guideline, a number of different style sets and slight variations could construct perfectly satisfactory rocketships.
Ryan showed us his minifigs passport, where all of his characters hundreds and hundreds of achievements and missions are tracked. All of the achievements give you specific rewards and LEGO points, which is an overall score denoting how much progress youve made in the game. The NetDevil crew began to search for all the various components of the rocket ship. The nosecone required a bit of jumping, and here we found a fun carryover from the Star Wars LEGO games. The Jedi-inspired double jump, Ryan explained, was such a fun feature that we had to have it.
The Spaceship tutorial area.
One very novel feature of Sky Lanes quest was that when we couldnt find the engine parts, the NPC clued us in on their general location high above. Its a quick shot of help that we saw throughout the demo, but its especially nice that the game gives new players a hand without excessive hand-holding via marks on the minimap and/or big green arrows. You get a clue as needed, but the help the game offers is far from smothering.
Since jumping wasnt going to cover the distance, we came across our first quickbuild - a carryover from the franchise games that is essentially a pile of blocks that can be quickly constructed into something useful. The bouncing platform we constructed could be used by all the folks in the group, and grabbing the last of the steampunk style rocketship parts resulted in an achievement and a spot reward of a t-shirt we could immediately equip. The ship has plenty of nooks and crannies and possibly other sets and achievements to be won, but now that we had all the rocket parts we followed Sky Lanes advice and prepared to get off the ship. With the Thinking Hat in our backpack, we returned to the 3D blueprint which we accessed to enter a build area.
In a build area, the minifig isnt concerned with everything going on in the area, but is taken to a sort of creative Zen LEGO state where the player can entirely focus on building. The character still appears and is animated in the persistent world and can chat with other players, but doesnt have to be concerned with hazards or attackers. Blocks can be taken out, put on the floor, assembled, rotated, colorized, and just played with, but once the build is finished, the pieces used are removed from inventory, the completed rocketship is optimized for performance, and the whole thing goes in our backpack. Ryan noted that all the aspects that you can never see on the complete build arent rendered to save graphical memory, but special backend voodoo like ambient occlusion is added to give the blocks a very lifelike took, We brought the ship to an escape hatch and took off for the closest world.
Avant GardensJudging from the name, youd think that Avant Gardens is a pretty peaceful place. Normally it is, except that it just got struck by the energy from the black hole, so some bad things are happening there. The world as seen from the research facility we touched down in was as lush, green, and interesting as you might think, and after the splash screen a status element informed us how many of each of the different types of collectibles weve obtained from this world. Ryan affirmed that you can return to each world after youve visited it to collect anything you might have missed.
Collectibles arent just for show; Ryan pointed out a collectible flag which, if we collect all 10 of these flags, will yield another heart. The game uses a Zelda-style approach to hitpoints, so more hearts means more hitpoint capacity. Its a good time to point out that there are no levels or classes in LEGO Universe; your character improves by expanding your capacity for hitpoints, armor, and imagination, or by improving your gear (gear defines your combat role).
Peter, the first NPC mission-giver we come to, is upset that one of the research insects has escaped due to the upheaval. Poking a similar creature in a nearby cage produced a quick and slightly ominous cutscreen showing what we might be up against. The scout we came to next was shocked to find we didnt have a weapon, so he gave us a choice of a sword, a club, or a spear. Ryan noted that theres a whole series of missions here but in the interest of time, we took the sword and ran. The first enemies we came to were defective robots. The cool thing being that once these robots were defeated, we could quick build a cannon from their parts to use against other enemies in the area.
Ryan showed us the entrance to a cave packed with nasties that was our first look at group content. Since you can return to any world at any time and there are no level caps or requirements per se, you can come back and complete this content later on when your group is looking for something fun to do.
For now, we continued on to the front lines, where some friendly NPCs had torn apart a bus and created a makeshift wall around them. More missions were available here, and Ryan showed us some pet Doberman guard dogs we could come back and tame. In addition to being allies in combat, pets play an important part in completing certain challenges (you might need your pet to stand on a plunger to unlock a bounce pad, for example, or to dig for buried treasure). The taming skill is acquired in a different world, so we had to pass by for now. Content that you have to skip by might be a bit frustrating for MMO players used to serially completing everything in an area and then moving on, but this underscores the fact that LEGO Universe is a collectors and explorers paradise - youre not consuming content as much as playing in it. As if on cue, Ryan explained that there are tons of LEGO bricks to be found in each area and no limit (at least for now) to the number of bricks and pieces you can collect. The more you have, the cooler the stuff you can make in the showcase area we came to next.
|A battle near the Avant Gardens research facility.|
A showcase is a little creative area used all throughout the different worlds. Theyre just fun little build challenges, in essence. In this particular instance, the showcase directed us to build a bat. Were in a cave, thats where bats live, build a bat. What a bat is, though, is designed by you. As Randall, a NetDevil programmer, lined up two wings and clipped them onto a wrench, and added in more pieces to make a more lifelike creature, Ryan explained that there was a lot of stuff going on in the background.
For one thing, LEGO bricks are extremely complex elements to render in real time. Thats made even more complicated by the fact that LEGO has exacting quality standards - if it doesnt look LEGO enough, they wont accept it. Normally thats ok because as a game developer, you have an army of 3D artists that can optimize your geometry, remove polygons, make it run well on lower-end machines, etc. What does the user at home have when theyre building the bat? They dont have a full development staff, we have to have technology in place that comes close to what we can do with a full development staff. Weve invested a lot of time and money in that, and today its all online.
At first I thought Ryan was waxing poetic about the complexity of stacking and rotating blocks and pieces in a 3D game world, no small feat by any means, but then a curious thing happened. When Randall saves that model in his inventory, it goes up to a server farm, it analyzes that model in lots of different ways, and makes it good enough to run on most peoples computers, and then he can submit it to a showcase and (after extensive moderation) other people can see it. The model bakes in ambient occlusions and high tech features to mirror the lighting environment, and a simple two minute bat looked surprisingly good. Ryan explained that while most games are using texture-based approaches to graphics rendering, given LEGO Us geometry and emphasis on absolute customizability, it made sense to stick to a highly optimized high polygon approach.
A quickbuild took us across a bridge, and we found ourselves at a monument construction site where a nearby road had been washed out by a surge of energy. Peter had followed us from the research facility, and we wended our way through an obstacle course of sorts, including lazers, cooling fans, and other hazards. The majority of these kind of puzzles had several solutions - you could switch off the lazers, destroy the lazers, or just jump over them, for a fairly easy example. We took a shortcut up the mountain and found a quickbuild for an elevator. Some quickbuilds require more imagination, so if you dont have enough, you cant do them, Ryan explained. With less imagination we could have found a different way around, but this is one of the ways LEGO U rewards veteran players for the progress theyve made.
After scarfing up a few collectable flags and a ton of bricks, we returned to Peter to complete the mission, providing us with a cool social item and the ability to build a race course over the monument. A quickbuild created a start and finish line, thus unlocking the course for ourselves and anyone thats completed the achievement. Even though the racecourse was nearly completely developed, it wasnt part of the demo. Ryan explained that theres a series of achievements, medals, and a scoreboard listing times associated with the race. You can even work with friends to optimize the racecourse by removing hazards, thus improving everyones time, or just hang out in the social area near the racecourse, do some shopping for cool weapons and accessories, or work on a few nearby showcases. And while most of the games story is told in large public areas, one can only imagine the fun possibilities that replayable content like racing will provide.
Ryan also pointed out mounted binoculars (like the kind you see around tourist attractions) nearby that help clue players in on content they might have missed. One binocular showed us a nearby buffalo that, with the proper taming skill, we could add to our pet collection, and another hinted at where we were going next by showing us a rocketpad. A third hidden binocular showed us a pirate on a little boat surrounded by sharks, just for fun.
Noting that kids are usually more comfortable with a keyboard than a mouse, Ryan explained that the game is designed to be played with either. Clicking on a binocular or wing up to it and pressing the shift key will produce the same result. The game will interpret which approach youre using and give you feedback based on that. Its a intuitive interface design approach thats good not just for kids but anyone hoping to play LEGO U on a laptop as well. It's a good time to note that though the game features full chat, layers of filters will be available to keep kids safe, and (again) no player-created models will be publicly viewable without passing through multiple tiers of moderation.
We were off again to a Temple of Doom-styled jungle forest world that played host to not only some indigenous baddies, but a host of pirates that somehow managed to crash there. We donned some better gear - any player can equip any piece of equipment, generally speaking - and gear also provides new abilities. With each new weapon, I was surprised to note that not only the combat animation changed, but the players default stance changed as well. It sounds like a small thing until you see the myriad weapons choices available to you.
|The Gnarled Forest quickbuild bridge and skull torches.|
The storyline mission is all about helping the pirates out of their mess, but since time was at a premium, we steamed on through the world. Our first stop was a quickbuild that drew a red X on the ground, denoting pirate treasure. If we had a pet, we could dig up that treasure, but we had to pass by for now. Coming to a ravine, we had another jump puzzle before us, and true to the games form, tips appeared when we got into trouble. Ryan took time to note that the flaming LEGO skulls on stakes at the foot of the bridge would rotate and waggle their jaws if clicked on. Unfortunately we didnt have a squirt gun, which we were told snuffs out the torch until the skull spits back water in your face.
We continued on to a spooky cave filled with undead pirates, which proved to be a tougher fight than any wed seen yet. A new quickbuild was before us after the fight; it consisted of three movable jump platforms that had to be arranged in the correct order before we could hop out of the cave. Ryan pointed out the golden Imagination Brick hovering overhead. Theres only one of these per level, and it would take some clever placement of the platforms to grab this special brick.
And after the cave, to lighten the mood, we saw a bunch of very alive pirates scrambling in fear from a monkey in a tree that had somehow found a pistol. We mollified the monkey with one of the life-restoring bananas taken from a nearby tree. After moving through an area with those classic LEGO prisons built into the walls, we came upon another social area with a pirate ship somehow stuck in the trees. Completing an achievement here unlocks a shooting gallery in the ship, which like the racecourse in Avant Gardens, is some pure unlockable leaderboard-driven fun.
|The Gnarled Forest social area.|
Speaking of pure fun, Ryan demoed an achievement ability that makes all your nearby friends dance a pirate jig, and that will no doubt be great fun for at least the first hundred times it happens. But the real kicker was the element of the game most popular with kids: burning your butt at the nearby campfire. Its classic slapstick, and the ensuing animations make full use of the comic moment. Burning butt minifigs jumping around like popcorn in Gnarled Forest might just be the new Night Elves dancing on the mailbox, but well have to wait and see.
Living in LEGO Universe
We wrapped up the demo in a private build area that each and every character will have to call home, and to me this conjures up so many memories of playing with LEGOs as a kid. It alone, for a LEGO nerd like me looking around an office cluttered with "serious" LEGO models, would be worth the price of admission. Heres where you can invite friends to play with your blocks and build absolutely whatever you like: a castle, a dragon, Yankee Stadium, a scale replica of Serenity. The only limit is the blocks youve collected; you can color and arrange them however you like. Its LEGO nirvana without the trip to the upscale mall and the hefty price tag, but perhaps the coolest thing is that you'll be able to order a kit with all the actual physical pieces for any of your creations. To wit, the rocket ship we constructed early in the demo, in all its various forms, sat on the table in front of me during the demo.
Thats as close as the game will get to microtransactions, however. Mark Hansen explained that LEGO Universe will be a subscription game. Parents and gaming purists everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief - virtual bricks, pieces, and accessories wont be available for purchase with real money, and glorious LEGO constructs will be as much a sign of LEGO U saavy as creative ability (since you'll have to collect all your bricks in game first). Ryan and Mark hinted at some form of PvP in the game, whether its smash em up racing, minigame hijinx, or perhaps something a little more close and personal, and also noted that while items make the minifig in the early going, you might have to make some permanent choices later in the game.
Overall, we couldn't be more impressed with what we saw of LEGO Universe. The graphics and art direction are absolutely top-notch, the gameplay looks to be as solid as anything we've seen in the LEGO niche, and what we saw - especially the showcases and private build area - absolutely captures the creative spirit of LEGO. Our only concern is that subscription MMOs have traditionally depended on compelling yet cyclical gameplay (large-scale PvP, dungeons, raids), but NetDevil's plans for the "elder game" are still a secret. Nevertheless, given NetDevil's philosophy of "vertical slice" development, many of the pieces seem to be falling in place, so to speak, for the game's targetted release in 2010, and we'll look forward to more information on LEGO Universe in the coming months.